The Costs of War
Last weekend marked the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. I have found myself thinking about the costs of the war, and of the many issues that war raises...
The Crusade for Democracy
With bubbling democratic impulses being felt from Lebanon to Iran, some neoconservative commentators have practically declared victory in this war. They are focused on the most recent news as if it demonstrates the Hegelian inevitability of some Brave New Democratic World Order. Whether or not this was the actual reason for going to war in Iraq or a result of that war, the causes of which are open to debate, it is clear that, from the beginning, neoconservative policy-makers have equated this democratic quest with the quest for American security and hegemony. It is the same kind of democratic crusade that served as the ideological motivation for Wilsonians in World War I and the liberal interventionists in World War II, and that led inadvertently to the creation of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia in the first instance, and a half-century of Cold War Communist tyranny in the second instance.
As I have stated in an ongoing debate on the Atlantis II Yahoo Group Discussion List, this crusade has come at significant cost, both qualitative and quantitative: billions of dollars, 1,500+ US dead, 11,000+ US wounded, and 30,000+ total US medical evacuations. And there are unknown thousands of Iraqi dead—which brings sobering irony to the oft-cited sentiment that if the US had done nothing in the face of Saddam Hussein's brutality, "many Iraqis were likely to be killed." I suppose some will decide the long-term value of this war by weighing the number of corpses on each side of the scales of justice.
In truth, some neocons understand (or at least understood) that democracy is not enough. Unlike Charles Krauthammer of today, Charley the K of yesteryear (circa 1993) got it right when he argued that "Democracy is not a suicide pact" (hat tip to Atrios):
Are we not violating the very tenets of democracy that are supposed to be the moral core of American foreign policy? No. Because democracy does not mean one man, one vote, one time. In the German elections of 1932 and 1933, the Nazis won more votes than any other party. We know what they did with the power thus won. Totalitarians are perfectly capable of achieving power through democracy, then destroying it.
Moreover, democracy does not just mean elections. It also means constitutionalism—the limitation of state power—in political life, and tolerance and pluralism in civic life. ...
The Growth of State Power
A "limitation of state power" is not consistent with the use of war as "politics by other means," as Clausewitz put it. That should come as no surprise; frequently, the use of war is the very means by which governments attempt to resolve problems that they themselves have either created or to which they have contributed decisively. And throughout history, war has been the most significant means to a vast increase in the size and scope of state power. I have examined, in countless discussions (see here, here, and in essays indexed here, for example), the role of US foreign policy in contributing to that cauldron of problems that is the Middle East. As much as these problems emerge from the caliphatic desires of Islamic fundamentalists and the tribal, ethnic, and religious strife in that region of the world, all of which long predates US intervention, the fact remains that the US has been targeted because of its foreign policy. And, in the long-run, it is only a radical change in US foreign policy, and, by extension, in US domestic policy, that will make a fundamental difference for the lives, liberties, and property of American citizens.
As Ayn Rand remarked so many years ago: "Foreign policy is merely a consequence of domestic policy." And both are reciprocal reinforcements of the system she identified as the "New Fascism":
While the government struggles to save one crumbling enterprise at the expense of the crumbling of another, it accelerates the process of juggling debts, switching losses, piling loans on loans, mortgaging the future and the future's future. As things grow worse, the government protects itself not by contracting this process, but by expanding it. The process becomes global: it involves foreign aid, and unpaid loans to foreign governments, and subsidies to other welfare states, and subsidies to the United Nations, and subsidies to the World Bank, and subsidies to foreign producers, and credits to foreign consumers to enable them to consume our goods...
... and so on, and so on. I'm tickled by the mere mention in this passage of the World Bank, which is oh-so-very-timely; some Rand-friendly writers applaud the New Reign of Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, when they should be advocating its abolition. Remember how Alan Greenspan was going to lead the U.S. to a free society as head of the Fed? Ugh.
The important point to emphasize is this: These institutions are the levers of state power; they constitute a part of the nexus of ultimate decision-making in contemporary political economy, the means to a vast redistribution of wealth toward politically favored groups; fundamental change in such a political economy is possible only with the complete dismantling of its structures and institutions. And that's why I can't bring myself to applaud the elevation of more "efficient" managers who will do a "better job" of administering oppressive statist institutions and of consolidating the privileges of those who benefit from these institutions. (I should note that it is highly debatable just how "efficient" these managers have been; on Wolfowitz, for example, see Arthur Silber's post here; on Greenspan, see especially Larry J. Sechrest's article in the current Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, abstract here.)
All of this brings to the fore an important issue that was first expressed as an old Leninist question: "Who? Whom? Who is the oppressor, who the oppressed? Who is doing what to whom?" And there is a corollary issue: Who bears responsibility in a complex system of oppression?
I addressed these subjects to some extent in my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:
R. W. Bradford conceptualizes the difficulty in a discussion of the Randian argument that those who receive benefits from government or who take public jobs are “morally justified” only if they regard these as “restitution,” while those who advocate for such benefits “have no right to them.” As the public sector crowds out the private sector, it is self-defeating for libertarians to become martyrs, while ceding to the profiteers of statism all the alleged benefits of the system. Rand’s only warning to prospective public sector employees is that they ought not to take jobs that bolster statism ideologically or that require the enforcement of “improper” laws, i.e., laws that violate individual rights per se. Like Rand, [Murray] Rothbard argues that in a state-run world one should “work and agitate in behalf of liberty,” “refuse to add to its statism,” and “refuse absolutely to participate in State activities that are immoral and criminal per se.” When one realizes that, for Rothbard, the very existence of the state is criminal, one begins to grasp the significant problems. For as Bradford observes, it is often difficult to evaluate the propriety of jobs or benefits—public or private—under statism. Recalling the Ruby Ridge conflict, he reasons: “Sure, it’s easy to see that, say, the FBI murder of Vicki Weaver while she held her baby in her arms in the doorway of her home is an ‘improper’ function of government.” But he wonders: ". . . what about the secretary who helps the FBI agent, who killed Mrs. Weaver, with his paperwork? Is his job also improper? What about the cook in the FBI cafeteria? Is his? And what about the person who hauls the trash from the FBI headquarters? Does it make a difference if the trash hauler or the cook work for a private firm that contracts with the FBI? I suspect that Rand, and most libertarians, would reply that these tasks are peripheral to the murder of Mrs. Weaver, and that the person who prepared the FBI agent’s lunch is not acting improperly. . . . But this doesn’t really answer the question of where exactly the boundary between proper and improper action lies."
Bradford emphasizes that, while the inner contradictions and crimes perpetuated by statism are omnipresent, our evaluation of moral action in that context requires a precise understanding of the particular conditions within which a given person acts. One can only determine the propriety of an action by factoring into one’s evaluation such important issues as people’s knowledge of the situation, their causal distance from the crime committed, the enormity of the crime, and the mitigating circumstances. Without taking these important qualifications into account, libertarians might gain “credibility” for adhering strictly to their own principles. But such adherence translates into a rationalistic application of dogma that comes “at the price of human suffering.”
Rand, Churchill, Bin Laden, and Moral Complicity
Think of how much more important these qualifications are in assessing the level of responsibility for individuals who live under the concrete historical circumstances of a particular time and place during a war. Rand addressed, on more than one occasion, the issue of the killing of innocents in wartime. (Silber has dealt with this issue extensively here.) Rand was famous for arguing that the responsibility for so-called collateral damage in warfare rests with those who initiated force, not with those who retaliate against it. She stated further:
This is a major reason people should be concerned about the nature of their government. If by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness, they couldn't overturn their bad government and choose a better one, then they have to pay the price for the sins of their government—as all of us are paying for the sins of ours.
That's why we have to be interested in the philosophy of government and in seeing, to the extent we can, that we have a good government. A government is not an independent entity: it's supposed to represent the people of a nation. If some people put up with dictatorship—as some do in Soviet Russia and as they did in Germany—they deserve whatever their government deserves. The only thing to be concerned with is: who started that war? And once you can establish that it is a given country, there is no such thing as consideration for the "rights" of that country, because it has initiated the use of force, and therefore stepped outside the principle of rights.
Rand stated additionally:
If you could have a life independent of the system, so that you wouldn't be drawn into an unjust war, you would not need to be concerned about politics. But we should care about having the right social system, because our lives are dependent on it—because a political system, good or bad, is established in our name, and we bear the responsibility for it.
There have not been many more poetic illustrations of these principles, and of the maxim that "ideas have consequences," not only for politics but for culture as well, than that which is found in Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. The passage I have in mind is not about war, per se, but it is relevant. It comes at the end of the chapter, "The Moratorium on Brains," and it is a dramatization of the destruction of the Comet, the fastest train in the country. It's actually, for me, one of the most memorable passages in the novel. There are different ways to interpret this passage. Some would say that Rand is clearly placing moral culpability on the passengers of the Comet, who are, in fact, the actual victims of the tragedy. Some would say that it's not so much "moral culpability" as it is complicity in the tragedy: These passengers accepted some or all of the premises that made the tragedy possible, and, to a certain extent, Rand is simply concretizing an old Biblical and Karmic adage: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." Ironically, this perspective is partially what led the infamous Whittaker Chambers to declare, in the pages of the right-wing National Review: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'" Here's the passage:
It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.
The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it's masses that count, not men.
The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion "for a good cause," who believed that he had the right to unleash physical force upon others—to wreck lives, throttle ambitions, strangle desires, violate convictions, to imprison, to despoil, to murder—for the sake of whatever he chose to consider as his own idea of "a good cause," which did not even have to be an idea, since he had never defined what he regarded as the good, but had merely stated that he went by "a feeling"—a feeling unrestrained by any knowledge, since he considered emotion superior to knowledge and relied solely on his own "good intentions" and on the power of a gun.
The woman in Roomette 10, Car No. 3, was an elderly school teacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil, that a majority may do anything it pleases, that they must not assert their own personalities, but must do as others were doing.
The man in Drawing Room B, Car No. 4, was a newspaper publisher who believed that men are evil by nature and unfit for freedom, that their basic interests, if left unchecked, are to lie, to rob and to murder one another—and, therefore, men must be ruled by means of lies, robbery and murder, which must be made the exclusive privilege of the rulers, for the purpose of forcing men to work, teaching them to be moral and keeping them within the bounds of order and justice.
The man in Bedroom H, Car No. 5, was a businessman who had acquired his business, an ore mine, with the help of a government loan, under the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.
The man in Drawing Room A, Car No. 6, was a financier who had made a fortune by buying "frozen" railroad bonds and getting his friends in Washington to "defreeze" them.
The man in Seat 5, Car No. 7, was a worker who believed that he had "a right" to a job, whether his employer wanted him or not.
The woman in Roomette 6, Car No. 8, was a lecturer who believed that, as a consumer, she had "a right" to transportation, whether the railroad people wished to provide it or not.
The man in Roomette 2, Car No. 9, was a professor of economics who advocated the abolition of private property, explaining that intelligence plays no part in industrial production, that man's mind is conditioned by material tools, that anybody can run a factory or a railroad and it's only a matter of seizing the machinery.
The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, "I don't care, it's only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children."
The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.
The woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.
The man in Bedroom F, Car No. 13, was a lawyer who had said, "Me? I'll find a way to get along under any political system."
The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 14, was a professor of philosophy who taught that there is no mind—how do you know that the tunnel is dangerous?—no reality—how can you prove that the tunnel exists?—no logic—why do you claim that trains cannot move without motive power?—no principles—why should you be bound by the law of cause-and-effect?—no rights—why shouldn't you attach men to their jobs by force?—no morality—what's moral about running a railroad?—no absolutes—what difference does it make to you whether you live or die, anyway? He taught that we know nothing—why oppose the orders of your superiors?—that we can never be certain of anything—how do you know you're right?—that we must act on the expediency of the moment—you don't want to risk your job, do you?
The man in Drawing Room B, Car No. 15, was an heir who had inherited his fortune, and who had kept repeating, "Why should Rearden be the only one permitted to manufacture Rearden Metal?"
The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 16, was a humanitarian who had said, "The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer. They must be penalized in order to support the incompetent. Frankly, I do not care whether this is just or not. I take pride in not caring to grant any justice to the able, where mercy to the needy is concerned."
These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.
However much one agrees or disagrees with Rand's various characterizations here, or with the degree of moral culpability that she may or may not ascribe to various individuals living in oppressive social conditions, one thing is clear: For Rand, nothing less than a fundamental transformation of those social conditions, of the political and social system, will do. And this transformation must be founded upon a philosophic and cultural revolution. Under social conditions that institutionalize a war of all against all, where nobody and everybody is responsible for anything and everything, all become part of an "orgy of self-sacrifice." And all pay the price.
Try though I might, I don't think I find much that is essentially different here from some of the musings of that notorious left-winger Ward Churchill. Now before this comment induces a stroke in my readers, let me state a few necessary caveats: I am not interested in debating the life or viewpoint of Ward Churchill, or the truth-content of his statements. I am, quite frankly, appalled by any suggestion that the victims of 9/11 deserved their fate and by any comparison of these victims to Nazis. But there was a recent thread on the Nathaniel Branden Yahoo Group List that compelled me to reflect on the "ominous parallels" at work here between Rand's and Churchill's positions.
Churchill set off a firestorm in the days after 9-11-2001, when he suggested that the victims of that day were "little Eichmanns" insofar as they were involved in a politico-economic system, and its infrastructure, which Islamic fundamentalists had targeted. For Churchill, this is a testament to "blowback" from a history of destructive US foreign policy. Here's Churchill's explanation of his statement:
Finally, I have never characterized all the September 11 victims as "Nazis." What I said was that the "technocrats of empire" working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of "little Eichmanns." Adolf Eichmann was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide. Similarly, German industrialists were legitimately targeted by the Allies.
It is not disputed that the Pentagon was a military target, or that a CIA office was situated in the World Trade Center. Following the logic by which US Defense Department spokespersons have consistently sought to justify target selection in places like Baghdad, this placement of an element of the American "command and control infrastructure" in an ostensibly civilian facility converted the Trade Center itself into a "legitimate" target. Again following US military doctrine, as announced in briefing after briefing, those who did not work for the CIA but were nonetheless killed in the attack amounted to "collateral damage." If the US public is prepared to accept these "standards" when they are routinely applied to other people, they should not be surprised when the same standards are applied to them.
It should be emphasized that I applied the "little Eichmanns" characterization only to those described as "technicians." Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9/11 attack. According to Pentagon logic, they were simply part of the collateral damage. Ugly? Yes. Hurtful? Yes. And that's my point. It's no less ugly, painful or dehumanizing a description when applied to Iraqis, Palestinians, or anyone else. If we ourselves do not want to be treated in this fashion, we must refuse to allow others to be similarly devalued and dehumanized in our name.
The bottom line of my argument is that the best and perhaps only way to prevent 9-1-1-style attacks on the US is for American citizens to compel their government to comply with the rule of law. The lesson of Nuremberg is that this is not only our right, but our obligation. To the extent we shirk this responsibility, we, like the "Good Germans" of the 1930s and '40s, are complicit in its actions and have no legitimate basis for complaint when we suffer the consequences. This, of course, includes me, personally, as well as my family, no less than anyone else.
Now, again, I'm not interested in debating Churchill's particular formulations here. And clearly, there are many profound differences between Rand and Churchill on many issues. But they are both concerned with complicity in the workings of a system that each of them defines as unjust. And their concentric circles of "complicity" are wide.
What is even more provocative is that Osama Bin Laden himself has argued similarly:
In my view, if an enemy ... uses common people as human shield, then it is permitted to attack that enemy. For instance, if bandits barge into a home and hold a child hostage, then the child's father can attack the bandits and in that attack even the child may get hurt. ... The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government, they elect their president, their government manufactures arms and gives them to Israel and Israel uses them to massacre Palestinians. The American Congress endorses all government measures and this proves that the entire America is responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. The entire America, because they elect the Congress.
This intersection of viewpoints among stark ideological opponents reminds me of Rand's comment back in the 1960s, when she noted that the vanguard among religious, leftist, and Objectivist intellectuals genuinely understood what was at stake in the global arena: "Well, as a friend of mine observed," Rand wrote, "only the Vatican, the Kremlin, and the Empire State Building [where Rand's offices were then located] know the real issues of the modern world." Of course, Bin Laden is not the Vatican, and Churchill is not the Kremlin, but these individuals do represent strains of religious and left-wing thought, so the thematic parallel remains.
If we abstract from this discussion any consideration of Rand's or Churchill's or even Bin Laden's philosophical or political positions, if we abstract from this discussion any consideration of the lives and/or broader ideological commitments of these individuals, I find no way of avoiding the implication of comparability.
All the more reason to apply to these issues the significant qualifications raised by Bradford in the passages cited above. Without these qualifications, I fear that we would be left with the creeping rot of collective guilt, whereby each of us would be held responsible for every moral transgression committed by our respective governments or governing bodies.
There are still battles to be fought: cultural, political, and military. The costs of the current war in Iraq can be measured in casualties (both visible and "invisible") and in expenditures. They can be measured too in unforeseen and unwanted consequences. But there is one "casualty" that is to be welcomed: The death of analytical simplicity. The war compels us to think hard about the moral issues—the applications, implications, and qualifications—raised above. A recognition of historical and systemic complexity does not require us to collapse the distinction between "good" and "evil" or the distinction between retaliatory and initiatory force. What it requires is a simultaneous assault on those who seek to destroy American life, liberty, and property—and on those ideas and policies that have delivered Americans to this historic moment.
Update: See "The Costs of War, Part II," for additional thoughts on the subject.